Posts Tagged ‘interpreting history’

Roger Brown Study Collection

December 15, 2009


I have blogged several times about Hull House and its approaches to interpretation of historic sites – in fact, “Hull House Again” is my most-visited blog post. I have also blogged about the Gaylord Building on several occasions, where I served as Chair of the Site Council for six years. Another role of mine this decade has been as a member of the Roger Brown Study Collection Steering Committee, involved in the preservation, interpretation and educational implementation of the property and collection at 1926 N. Halsted in Chicago.

The site itself is an increasingly rare but once common two-story 1880s building that originally had a storefront and 3 apartments. A successful and influential Chicago painter associated with a 1970s-80s group labeled the Imagists, Roger and his partner George Veronda converted 1926 N. Halsted into a studio and home beginning in the 1970s. Over the course of two decades Roger produced much of his work here in his first floor studio and amassed a nearly overwhelming collection of art from the fine to the folk to the kitsch to the ephemeral that bedecks the second floor, the staircases and nearly every available space.

The place is literally packed with the collection as Roger had displayed it, or more appropriately, lived with it. My students both graduate and undergraduate really appreciate the place as a four-dimensional example of an artistic environment and as a stunning project of conservation and interpretation.

I serve on the Steering Committee with a roster of famous artists who knew and worked with Roger, and whose works are included in the collection, including Gladys Nillson, Jim Nutt, and Barbara Rossi. Nick Lowe from Arts Administration and Policy, is doing an amazing project documenting – and creating miniatures of – Roger Brown’s California home and collection, to be at Hyde Park Arts Center this spring.

The incomparable Lisa Stone curates and manages the collection, and like her South Halsted counterpart Lisa Lee, has made the site an educational experience of uncommon depth. You always experience something new there. I had my students sketch whatever they liked in the studio and when I reviewed their sketches a couple of weeks later I saw things I had never seen.

What strikes me about historic sites are the accidental details, the mundane but telling forensics of the everyday. At Roger Brown I always show everyone the medicine cabinet, still filled with toothbrushes, Maalox, cotton swabs and other typical accoutrements. I saw the house shortly after Roger donated it to the School of the Art Institute in 1996, the year before his death, and was struck at that time by its time capsule quality: underwear stacked neatly in the closet, toothbrushes in the medicine cabinet, spice containers in the kitchen. The details of everyday life.

The fact that I can still see that medicine cabinet is oddly comforting. At times we feared that the School would deaccession the building. While the collection might be saved in that scenario, to have the collection in its original context is geometrically more educational. Somehow the medicine cabinet is that slice of everyday which grounds and makes real the rest of the collection.

It is striking the various educational programs that have taken place in the building. Our historic preservation graduate students restored the storefront in Neal Vogel’s class and cleaned graffiti from the side in Bill Latoza’s class and have helped document the collection and assess the building. This past Spring we did an interpretive project for the adjacent Armitage-Halsted District and met with Alderman Vi Daley in the building during and after the project.

Like Hull House, the Roger Brown collection is not simply preserving a place and its objects: it is preserving the purpose of a place by extending that purpose. Roger Brown made art in this building and a world of art and artists swirled through its interior for two decades: after he moved to California the gallery Intuit occupied the first floor. The School of the Art Institute is not simply preserving the building, it is preserving the importance of the building by extending that artistic and educational mission dozens of times every single semester with students of every age and background. That is what our field – heritage conservation – is all about.

November 2010 UPDATE: The Roger Brown Home & Studio is about to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places! Great work by Susannah Ribstein and of course Lisa Stone.

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Both Sides Now

December 20, 2006

Two similar things occur and you imagine you have spotted a trend. Yesterday I read an article by Neil Asher Silberman in Archaeology magazine about Waterloo, where a new interpretive scheme and visitors center are being built. This is in Belgium, where Napoleon was finally defeated by Wellington in 1815. Silberman was very critical, both because the new visitors center construction would destroy archaeological evidence of the battle and because the new interpretive scheme would take pains not to portray the battle in nationalistic terms. Silberman was nonplussed: “one side undoubetedly won and the other quite certainly lost.” This was Waterloo, after all. Moreover, the plan was being done by an advisory panel, an exhibit design firm and the dude who directed Cirque de Soleil. The implied commodification of history was disturbing.

Then this morning’s paper announced Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” released two months after “Flags of our Fathers”. Both are about the same World War II battle – one told in English from the American perspective; the other in Japanese from the Japanese perspective.

So here is the trend and here is the misreading: Hysteric ideologues would see all this as political correctitude gone overboard (although if they were honest, they would admit that they don’t need “overboard” to go ballistic – even the hint of balance will do it.) We can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys!

To me the problem is not one of telling both sides of the story or whose perspective is right. It isn’t even about who is telling the story. It IS about who is hearing the story and how they hear it. No one – not even in Wal-Mart – is a mere passive receptacle fit only for premammalian imprinting. A good Waterloo or Iwo Jima interpretation – like a good movie – lets the viewer in and gives them the tools to craft their own interpretation.

There is a marvelous, frightening feeling to ambiguity and a corresponding claustrophobia to certainty. Several years ago, two World War II movies came out near the same time – Matlick’s “The Thin Red Line” and Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. The latter was a bigger hit but the former was a better movie because it was loaded with ambiguity from the get-go – you couldn’t even tell the main characters apart. Private Ryan required not a moment’s thought afterwards. I’m STILL thinking about The Thin Red Line. Spielberg won the box office and the awards, but even his good movies are one-track roller coasters without room for ambiguity. I remember seeing Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when it came out in 1979. I was only a kid, but I knew I had been cheated and suckered, taken for a ride on a roller coaster. I walked away with that dirty feeling of manipulation and violation. Forced onto the one-interpretation-only express with no room for my thoughts or emotions. “AI” was the same.

All of this is not to become a film critic but to understand that interpretation – and I am doing a seminar on interpreting historic sites next semester – can take people on rides or treat them like adults. This is a vote for the latter. And for archaeology – don’t let the suits run your history.

BTW – I am on the radio tomorrow night (Thursday)– AM 720, WGN, Milt Rosenberg’s show, with Wil Hasbrouck and Richard Cahan – talking about preservation…..tune in